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Embellishing everyday foods

First We Eat: Add a puff pastry topping to a common stew and it suddenly elevates the meal

Mom doesn’t like to cook. I hardly blame her — she’s 84, after all, and spent decades feeding five kids and my dad. When Mom had double knee replacement surgery seven years ago, Dad stepped into the kitchen. Mom was relieved, and after her knees healed, she didn’t return to cooking, but ate whatever Dad made.

Now a widow, Mom cooks again, albeit reluctantly and sparely. I do her shopping, and I deliver a variety of homemade dishes — soup, pasta sauce, muffins, crisps — when we visit for weekly movie night, and I make lunch (with leftovers) in her kitchen when we return from our farmers’ market forays.

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Mom and I are working our way through the backlog of ingredients Dad accumulated before he died. He was a keen shopper, loved a bargain, and thought if some was good, more must be better. When Mom found several packets of round steak in the freezer, she turned the meat over to me, saying she’d never cook it. So I made a big potful of beef and wild mushroom stew for her. But even a carefully made stew constructed with good stock and wild mushrooms and red wine appreciates a little up-sell. So I made puff pastry, and filled six two-portion ramekins with stew, then covered each ramekin with pastry, slashed and glazed with egg wash, unbaked and ready for the freezer. I told Mom to roast some vegetables and a spud whenever she thawed and baked one of the ramekins. The pastry and roasted vegetables transformed that simple dish into a multi-textured meal.

The same pastry upgrade can be accorded to vegetable stew, chicken stew, lamb tagine — any would benefit from a little lily gilding. It needn’t be scratch-made puff pastry, although it’s the most dramatic. Back in the day in my little Calgary restaurant, I routinely made chicken pot pies to order, topping a bowlful of chicken stew with stacks of buttered filo pastry, subjecting the whole thing to enough time in the oven to transform the pastry to a golden cap. Or, in the southern style, a few biscuits served as topping transformers. Even an upper-crust layer of thinly sliced and buttered potatoes can reinvent a day-to-day stew.

The process of adding a crust to a humble stew is like making cobbler or crisp instead of eating a bowlful of plain berries: it adds texture and a layer of complexity without increasing the degree of difficulty. Despite its rep, puff pastry really isn’t difficult. Sure, it has an aura of glamour, but like most pastry, puff pastry just requires a rolling pin, a bit of time and practice. Quietly serve the results without labelling them as “puff” until your hands are attuned.

So here’s a quick puff pastry to embellish your next humble stew or fruit cobbler. It is so much better than most commercial versions, and making it is quicker than waiting for that frozen brick of commercial puff pastry to thaw. Try it. First we eat the results, then we can discuss other ways to embellish everyday foods.


Dee’s Quick Puff Pastry

When I make pastry to top savoury dishes like stew, I sometimes use equal parts of butter and good lard. For sweet dishes like fruit, I use all butter all the time. Makes enough for 6 small ramekins or 3 9-inch pies.

Pastry

  • 3 c. all-purpose flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 c. cold butter, cut in cubes (or half butter/half lard)
  • 1 c. cold water (more as needed)

Egg wash

  • 1 whole egg
  • 4 tbsp. cream

Combine the flour and salt. Use a pastry cutter or 2 knives to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the fat is the size of big peas. Add the water (more as needed depending on the climate and humidity). Mix to just hold together.

Turn out the pastry onto a floured counter. Use your hands to form the pastry into a thick rectangle. Keep the edges as tidy as you can. Fold one-third of the pastry over top, then fold the far side over top so you have a fat rectangle. Turn the dough 90 degrees. Roll out the dough into a fat but tidy rectangle, then fold in thirds again. Turn and repeat 4 times. Wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before you plan to roll out for use. Cut dough into 4 pieces and roll on floured counter to preferred thickness. Use a sharp knife to cut to required size and shape. Cut several slashes in the centre of the pastry as steam vents. Transfer pastry to top of stew or fruit filling. Chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Make the egg wash by whisking the egg and cream until well blended. Brush onto the pastry. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 F. Bake for another 20 minutes or until golden.

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